Think back on the story of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein. How during the summer of 1816, sex demon Lord Byron invited a handful of friends to his Swiss villa for fun in the sun near majestic Lake Geneva. But when the weather turned unseasonably dreary, and Byron got bored of dipping his quill in every lady's ink, he issued a challenge: Come up with the best horror story you can.
Now, in whatever mental space you've created this image, wipe those motherfuckers with popped collars and billowing dresses composing classy gothic tales right out of the picture. In their place, swap in beardos covered in lipstick, grandmas who appreciate butt plugs for aesthetic value, and randoms wearing excessive amounts of tin foil, all of whom aspire to the greatness of, say, Ass Goblins of Auschwitz. What you have is BizarroCon, brought to you by Eraserhead Press.
Every November, a hundred or so authors, publishers, and fans of the literary phenomenon known as “bizarro fiction” travel to a converted farmhouse in Troutdale, Oregon, 16 miles east of Portland, to take part in the most insane writers' retreat this side of Ted Kaczynski's shack. It's not a pompous weekend where midlife crises-addled accountants pay mid-level authors to tell them, in a variety of ways, that “the key to writing a novel is writing a novel.” This is a goddamn party.
Eraserhead Press is a Portland-based independent publisher that specializes in said “bizarro.” Trying to describe what that means in concrete terms is futile; instead it's more about tone. Think Troma, or as Eraserhead's website puts it, “Dr. Seuss of the post-apocalypse.” A random sampling of titles: Satan Burger, Abortion Arcade, The Traveling Dildo Salesman. That long-haired kid with a pentagram lightly scratched into his arm doodling obscenely begenitaled creatures in his notebook? Eraserhead is his kind of thing.
“It's a place where all the darkness, silliness, humor, childlike wonder, and imagination play,” says Simon Ore, attendee of the last two Cons. “It's reinventing cult."
BizarroCon, then, is where believers coming up with books like Santa Claus Conquers the Homophobes let their ideas fester, metastasize, and infect.
Edgefield Manor, where it’s held, has a lore as rich as blood pudding on Faberge china: Once a paupers’ farm, tuberculosis hospital, lodge for emotionally troubled children, then a nursing home, it’s now a gorgeous getaway estate featuring a brewery, a winery, three restaurants, eight bars, soaking pool, golf course, movie theater, and more.
The annual Ultimate Bizarro Showdown, the most-anticipated event of the Con, features 20 authors taking the stage in front of a hammered crowd. Each gets two minutes to tell the raunchiest, weirdest, bile-and-feces-laden story he or she can muster. (On one occasion, this meant a “live 3-D performance,” as Ore calls it, which actually meant giving 3-D glasses to everyone and pelting them with pieces of octopus.) After two minutes, the audience either gives collective approval for two additional minutes so the author can wrap up her or his tale, or force an exit stinking with failure. True democracy in action.
Crowd participation is smart business, says Rose O'Keefe, head of Eraserhead. It gives authors a chance to get advice from peers (e.g.: “I really like your costume, but couldn't hear through the mask”) and gauge reactions to see what might work as a published title. Still, says O'Keefe, “I'm not basing publishing decisions on whether or not they're performers.”
To get a better sense of what Eraserhead is really looking for, one need only attend the Con's brainstorming session. For this, authors bring a title and back-cover description for a theoretical book. From that, bizarros vote on which they'd buy, the top ten earning O'Keefe’s encouragement to write it. The event's not only an effective filter (“It saves a person from writing a shitty idea and me having to reject that shitty idea,” she says), it also sums up the company's grand ethos: Getting what you pay for. Buy a book called The Haunted Vagina, and you're not getting an esoteric examination of gender norms—you're getting a story about a vagina. That's haunted.
But when looking for new writers, she isn't just looking in the market for the craziest ideas. She's also looking for folks who can hang. “I only want to be in business with people I enjoy working with,” says O’Keefe. Instead of a faceless, personality-free, email-based relationship—pretty much the norm in any writing industry these days—Eraserhead is one big fucked-up family, and BizarroCon is their fucked-up reunion. “We think people who call things 'literary movements' are douchebags,” says O'Keefe, “but it really is one.”
Which means, if you want to write for Eraserhead, you better damn well attend BizarroCon. And if you don't have it in you to drink all weekend and hear stories about stuff like jerked-off-into socks turning on their masters, well, you're better off sticking to The Corsair.